Strike against the
Ohio and Mobile Railroad
Colonel R. M. Wallace
HEADQUARTERS CAVALRY DIVISION THIRTEENTH ARMY CORPS,
Near Oxford, Miss., December 20, 1862
COLONEL: I beg leave to report to Maj. Gen. US Grant, commanding
the department that his order commanding me to take a part of my division of cavalry and strike the Mobile and Ohio Railroad as far south as practicable and destroy it as much as possible was received about 11 o'clock on the night of the 13th instant a few miles east of Water Valley.
Colonel Hatch, commanding the Second Brigade, was ordered to report to me at half past 8 a. m. of the 14th with 800 picked men from his command, properly officered, well mounted, well armed, and with 50 rounds of ammunition, with rations of hard bread and salt, and ready for six days' scout, with no more wagons than necessary to haul the rations. Major Ricker, with a battalion of the Fifth Ohio Cavalry, was sent to the south from Paris to make a demonstration toward Grenada, and the residue of the Second Brigade was sent with the train to the rear, to camp upon the Yockna River. Colonel Mizner was ordered to take command of the First and Third Brigades, to guard the crossing of the Otuckalofa River, and to make a strong cavalry reconnaissance toward Grenada on the Coffeeville route, reporting directly to Maj. Gen. U.S. Grant. At 9 a.m. on Sunday the 14th, with a small escort from Company F, Fourth Illinois Cavalry, under Lieutenant Carter, and Colonel Hatch's detachment of 800 men from the Second Iowa Cavalry and the Seventh Illinois Cavalry, I took the road for Okolona, and reached Pontotoc, 45 miles march, at 9:30 on Monday morning. On the way we fell in with small scouting parties of the enemy and captured several prisoners, by some of whom we were informed that a body of rebel infantry from Bragg's army were encamped 5 miles east of Pontotoc, on the road to Tupelo, and another near Tupelo, and by others just returned from Columbus that there was a strong rebel force at Okolona. A small party dashed off on the Tupelo road 5 or 6 miles, but found no enemy. At Pontotoc the gentle rain through which we had marched changed to a violent storm, and the roads were heavy. All our ambulances and prisoners were sent back from Pontotoc, with two wagon loads of leather and the Government surveys and township maps of the State of Mississippi (found at Pontotoc), under an escort of 100 men.
Major Coon, of the Second Iowa Cavalry, with about 100 men, was sent rapidly forward to strike the railroad at Coonewar Station, north of Colona, with orders to destroy the telegraph line and railroad, and especially the railroad bridge north of Okolona.
At 1 p. m. on Monday, with the rest of my command, I took the road for Tupelo, through a terrific rain storm, and moving steadily forward zigzag road, with vexing intersecting roads, through low muddy ground, much of it heavily timbered and intersected by small sluggish streams, passable only on small frail bridges in bad condition. A little after dark the light of a considerable fire was observed some miles distant to the south, and a less bright but broader light could be seen some miles to the north. An officer sent to a dwelling not far from our road was told by the occupant that these fires were rebel campfires.
Pushing cautiously forward, at within 2 miles of Tupelo we learned from the occupant of a house near by (who mistook us for rebel cavalry) that Federal troops from Corinth had that day been at Saltillo, 8 miles north of Tupelo, and that the rebels had fled south, abandoning Tupelo.
Fearing that Major Coon might encounter too strong a foe, Lieutenant Colonel Prince, Seventh Illinois Cavalry, with about 100 men, was sent promptly into Tupelo, and the rest of the force was moved back 7 miles to a point where the Aberdeen road broke off to the southeast, and on which it was ascertained that Major Coon had advanced, with a view of affording him support if needed. It was found that Major Coon had dashed into Coonewar in the afternoon, stampeded a small party of rebel cavalry, took a few prisoners, and made a strenuous but unsuccessful effort to capture a railroad train passing that station south. The train was fired upon by his advance on the full gallop, and one trooper, leaping from his horse, pistol in hand, mounted the side of the tender under way, but was compelled as promptly to jump off to avoid a leaning post standing close to the track and just ahead of him. The depot, containing commissary stores and corn, was burned, and small bridges and trestle work on the road near Coonewar were destroyed. Lieutenant Colonel Prince returned about 3 o'clock a. m. Tuesday to our camp, having found no enemy in Tupelo, and having destroyed some strong rebel force approaching from the northeast, upon his left and rear and withdrew his main force back through the village to a strong position, facing the road upon which the approaching force was advancing. The enemy attacked with determined vigor with a force of cavalry estimated at eight regiments; but after a fierce fight was worsted and driven back with considerable loss. Another detachment of the enemy at this moment threatened the rear of Colonel Hatch's command. Leaving Lieutenant Colonel Prince with the Seventh Illinois to hold the ground Colonel Hatch went with the rest of his command to the rear, on the route he had advanced over. At this juncture Colonel Lee's command made its appearance from the northeast. Colonel Prince, supposing it to be another detachment of the enemy, thought it prudent to withdraw to the northwest, on the road upon which he had advanced. The former approaching, learned from prisoners that Colonel Hatch had been in Water Valley, had had a fight, and afterward fell back. Inferring that Colonel Hatch had been beaten he advanced with great caution, waiting to communicate with Hatch. The country being hilly and densely wooded it took some time to establish communications. By this chapter of accidents the enemy found time to escape across the Otuckalofa and burn the bridge near the railroad; but we arrived in time to save the railroad bridge. We bivouacked on the north bank of the river. While here it was reliably ascertained that Federal forces from Helena had been at or near Grenada and on the railroad to the northwest-infantry at Charleston, cavalry at Oakland and that some cavalry fighting had taken place at the latter point on Tuesday and Wednesday. The desire to communicate with these forces, relying somewhat upon the moral effect of their presence at this point, determined me to press the enemy one day longer.
Colonel Mizner's command, with one piece of artillery, was ordered to take the advance on Friday morning, followed by Lee's brigade, and that by Colonel Hatch's. Considerable delay occurred in getting across the river, and Colonel Lee, having found a bridge near his camp, reached the main road on the south side of the Otuck (as it is familiarly called), before the advance of Colonel Mizner's command. To avoid delay he was ordered to take the advance, and did so, followed by Colonel Mizner's command, and his by that of Colonel Hatch's. Thus the entire command was concentrated, and from the absence of parallel roads, compelled to move on the same road.
At about 2 o'clock the head of the column came up with the rear of the enemy and pressed him sharply. Having discovered a small party of rebel cavalry on our right carefully watching our movements, a detachment was sent to dislodge it, and an order was sent to Colonel Lee, at the head of the column, to move cautiously, throw out strong flankers, and show a wide front. Colonels Hatch and Mizner were also directed to throw out flankers at the head of each of their commands.
Riding rapidly top the front I found one piece of our artillery moving cautiously forward and now and then throwing shell beyond our skirmishers as they steadily advanced. At about 1 mile from Coffeeville a few shells were thrown to the front, when suddenly the enemy opened at short range upon our position with shell, using, I think, four pieces of artillery, perhaps six. At this same time his infantry in line opened upon our advanced dismounted skirmishers with rapid volleys, while heavy skirmishing was in progress on both flanks of the head of our column and extending to the rear of the head of the column. From all this it was quite evident we had encountered a heavier force than we were able to combat, under the jaded condition of our men and horses.
Colonel Lee was ordered to fall back steadily in the center and strong parties were at once sent to the support of our skirmishers on the right and left flanks. The column was faced to the rear and Colonel Mizner and Hatch were ordered to form ? supporting lines of detachments on each side of the road to cover the retreat of our skirmishers and check the advance of the enemy on the main road. The enemy pressing hard upon our retreating forces, the moving back of the led horses of dismounted men and the ? of wagons, and ambulances occasioned considerable confusion, though no indications whatever of a panic were at any time perceptible. Our flanks were repeatedly attacked by the enemy's infantry, but our flankers as often succeeded in repulsing them. The Column was steadily withdrawn about 1½ mile to the rear to an open field, when the fighting ceased. Night having? in the mean time the column was halted at this point, a strong rear guard sent back to watch the enemy and check his pursuit if attempted, while suitable parties were detached to watch the approaches on the right and left flanks of the rear. Having waited about an hour to enable our dismounted men to find and mount their horses the division was marched back to the camps which it had occupied the night before, arriving there at about 11 p.m. Here I at first thought of resting the next day and sending scouting parties toward Coffeeville, but upon the advice of Colonel Lee the command was moved early on the morning of the 6th to Yockna River, crossing at Prophet Bridge, about 6 miles distant from Water Valley. The command was encamped so as to watch the approaches and gather forage.
In the action near Coffeeville, as well as during the entire pursuit, the men and officers behaved in the most gallant manner, cheerfully bearing every hardship in order to inflict injury upon the enemy.
Lieutenant Colonel McCullough, of the Fourth Illinois Cavalry, fell while covering the retreat of our column with the mounted companies of his regiment. He was at first reported wounded and a prisoner, but it is now ascertained that he was instantly killed. A better or braver man never fought or fell. He died with his face to the foe, at the lead of his command, thus nobly sacrificing his life for the safety of his fellows. His loss is a severe one to the country and the service.
Lieutenant Woodburn of the Seventh Kansas fell mortally wounded at the first volley of the enemy. Captain Townsend, Fourth Illinois Cavalry: Lieutenant Colhert, of the Seventh Kansas: Captain Eystra and Lieutenants Reed, Budd, and Harrington, of the Second Iowa and Captain Caldwell, of the Third Michigan Cavalry, received honorable wounds in this action. Sergeant Baylor, of my escort, was wounded by my side near the close of the action. The horse of Colonel Lee was wounded, that of Colonel Hatch Killed.
The conduct of Colonels Mizner, Lee, and Hatch in the handling of their troops was worthy of praise. Major Ricker, of the Fifth Ohio Cavalry, conducted the rear guard in the retreat with cool bravery and good judgment.
Lieutenants Wilson and Davis of my staff deserve special commendation for their efficiency in transmitting my orders and effecting their execution and for valuable suggestions in the midst of the action.
Other officers were self possessed and inspired the men with confidence. I mention only those whose conduct came under my own personal observation.
As to the troops, they fought well, without exception. The Seventh Illinois and the battalion of the Fifth Ohio, which had until very lately been ill armed, have proven themselves, with good arms in their hands.
4th Illinois Cavalry